Rare earth elements are in the palms of our hands and have a big role to play in a greener future.

They are in your smartphone, electric vehicles and used widely in renewable energy technology. But what exactly are ‘rare earth’ elements and just how rare are they?

Rare earth elements are a collection of 17 elements on the periodic table. They include the group known as lanthanides, plus two honorary members, scandium and yttrium, that have similar characteristics.

“There’s a whole row on the periodic table that’s made up of these elements and they all have amazing properties,” Professor John Mavrogenes says.

“Oddly enough, they are not very rare at all. They are similar in abundance to lead and copper. But what’s more important is an element’s propensity to form large high-grade deposits and where these deposits are located.

“When it comes to rare earths, most come from just two huge deposits — the largest of which is in China. This explains why we consider them ‘critical’, because we depend so much on one country to keep up our supplies.”

Illustration: Anya Wotton

What kind of things are they useful for?

They have astounding magnetic characteristics. You can heat them up to really high temperatures and they’ll stay magnetic, unlike traditional iron magnets.

“We’re already seeing these elements used in flat screen TVs and smartphones. But in the future, we expect to see them used more and more for things like high-temperature magnets in wind turbines and cars, or for storing and transporting hydrogen safely,” Mavrogenes says.

Sounds great. Do we have deposits here in Australia?

There are several major deposits in Australia already, with more likely to be discovered. We have a world-class deposit at Mount Weld in Western Australia and others near Dubbo and Alice Springs.

How do we get them out of the earth?

The minerals they reside in are not easily broken down so high temperature ‘cracking’ with acid is the first step, which is dirty, dangerous and expensive, Mavrogenes says.

“Once cracked they need to be dissolved in acid and chemically separated, another challenging process. China leads the world in this because they have the biggest deposit on Earth, so they’ve spent the endless hours required to learn how to extract the rare earth elements from minerals. Additionally, they maintain industries which utilise the extracted oxides, producing end products at great profit.”

Professor John Mavrogenes. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

What does the future look like for rare earths in Australia?

“Huge,” according to Mavrogenes.

“Given our giant deposits, if we were to extract the rare earths and make components such as batteries and magnets, we could increase our GDP, bring employment to the regions, develop a high-tech sector and make a significant contribution to a greener future.”

PhD researcher Ross Chandler says rare earths provide an opportunity to produce the building blocks of green technology in a green way. “We’ve got the best environmental regulations on the planet; we could get it out of the ground while doing less environmental damage in the process.”

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